Riding the Crosswinds in the Afghan-Pakistan Borderands
Honoured on the Writers Workshop Website Success Stories Page – Under Big Hitters categroy
Publication date First week of December 2012: Order your copy now – click on: I.B. Tauris Ltd
North-West Pakistan and the Afghan Borderland is one of the most fascinating and ruggedly beautiful places I’ve ever visited. It is also a place of great political tensions, and one which I feel we should all know and understand much better. Robin-Brooke-Smith’s book is an invaluable account of life among the people of the region by someone who knows and understands the subject at first hand.” Michael Palin
This site is about my book. This is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Ten years ago, the world was a different place. 9/11 had not yet happened.
If you are looking for a new perspective on life and daily realities in Northwest Pakistan and the troubled borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, here it is. Robin Brooke-Smith has written a first-hand account of five years spent in Peshawar as Principal of its most famous college.
He will take you by the hand and lead you on an adventure that will sometimes charm you and sometimes make your hair stand on end.
You will meet many characters and you will hear voices that you will not hear anywhere else. From great figures like the Governor of the Northwest Frontier Province and the Head of the dreaded ISI military intelligence to the most humble gardener, cook and chowkidar (security guard) your will hear new voices and new perspectives.
You will feel the tensions of the daily struggle in a difficult and often dangerous place. You will relish many simple amusing incidents and delightful encounters.
Behind it all is the sinister drumbeat of a country and region lurching into a crisis. You will experience the dangerous conspiracies that Robin encountered and finally you will be swept up into the global disaster of 9/11 and the trouble years that have followed.
Take a ringside seat and see this troubled place in a way you have never seen it before.
I was a teacher in a provincial English town and I had a dilemma. I loved this place deeply and yet I yearned for new horizons and, yes – an adventure. Then my eye fell on an advertisement in the Times Educational Supplement: WANTED – PRINCIPAL – EDWARDES COLLEGE PESHAWAR.
After much agonising, I accepted the post of Principal of this famous old Christian mission college set in the heart of one of the most conservative Muslim cultures. I headed for a dangerous place with a ringside seat at the pivot of the global jihad. Beyond the city were the fabled Khyber Pass and the Pushtun lands. Here the ‘clash of civilisations’ was at its loudest. Just before leaving, the BBC News proclaimed; ‘bomb blast in Peshawar… many dead… Governor the target…’
In January 1996, I stepped into this great Pushtun city. Conspiracy, intrigue and the march of the Taliban provided a troubling counterpoint to the irresistible charms of a great college. All appeared calm in the lovely grounds of this 100-year-old College while outside a storm was brewing.
This much-loved Mission College was full of characters: the humorous Maj. Zaheen, the devious Prof. Zafar, loyal Mr Jehangir, cook Yusuf full of gossip, Khalid Aziz, Chief Secretary of the Government; and Changez, painter, cricketer, and lovable scoundrel. The students were full of romantic love, cricket and thirst to learn. They brought fun and laughter as they led me gently into their Pushtun world.
Not all was well. The Bishop of Peshawar was at loggerheads with the Governor of NWFP (College Board Chairman) over control of the college. Attempts by senior staff to destabilise me, conflicts between Muslim and Christian staff, were counterbalanced by memorable ‘golden nights’, candlelight dinners, and cricket. In the background was the drumbeat of the rise of the Taliban and the expanding web of Al Qaeda terror and worsening relations with the USA. There were lovely interludes in the mountains of Malakand, which would soon become a no-go preserve of the Taliban and a battleground for the very soul of Pakistan.
The Governor and I had memorable private conversations about Islam, Christianity, and the troubles besetting the region. I met senior military and political figures as the country slid into crisis. After the military coup in 1999 Khalid Aziz, key ally and friend, was imprisoned and tortured by the generals. The political sands were shifting and I was becoming isolated.
Pakistan Military Intelligence
As the college centenary approached in April 2000, a dangerous conspiracy engulfed me. Who were my shadowy antagonists? Some were extremists others had grievances against the college. Gen. Mahmood, Head of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and second-most-powerful man in the country, phoned me to offer help. He ‘tasked’ secret ISI agents to infiltrate the conspirators in Peshawar. An ISI Brigadier in Peshawar had some haunting words of wisdom from the poet Iqbal for me. ‘Oh Eagle do not fear the cross winds, they are blowing to make you fly higher.’ Not the sort of advice I expected.
The threat was narrowly averted – for now. The ISI were hand-in-glove with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and General Mahmood was talking to Osama bin Laden. I was dealing with a man who would shortly authorise the payment of $100,000 (via the sinister UK educated terrorist Sayeed Omar Sheikh) to Mohammed Atta the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers.
Which way should I turn to defend myself? Where would the next attack come from? I was scared.
No sooner was one conspiracy contained than we received a threat to bomb the Centenary celebrations. Secret agents moved in to protect the event. An undercover agent told me, ‘three men carrying timers, detonators and explosives were arrested at the college on the night before the centenary.’ After being tortured, they were found murdered. We hosted 1500 guests including Governors, Generals and Ministers. The grand finale of fireworks nearly burned the college down.
In 2001 I crossed the globe to become Principal of the University of Toronto Schools. On the morning of 9/11, I was meeting the President of the University, when simultaneously General Mahmood was having breakfast on Capitol Hill with the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Earlier he had met George Tenet head of the CIA. Why was he in Washington, what had he done to Pakistan and the world?
As war came to Afghanistan and Iraq, I remained in touch with friends in Peshawar. Pakistan began to fracture as the Taliban seized control in Swat, Waziristan and Bajaur. The Taliban brought bombing, death and misery to the cities of Pakistan. Through all this Edwardes College continued on its peaceful way.
Khalid Aziz was released in 2003 and in 2010 the Supreme Court cleared his name. In March, as revolution engulfed the Arab world, he came to Shrewsbury and spoke movingly about his trials.